Helping Your Child Own Their Spiritual Journey

Written by Mark Gregston. Posted in encouragement, Finding purpose, God's Will

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Statistics show that 85% of kids today are leaving the church upon graduation from high school.  When I was a teen, I wasn’t brave enough to say: “I don’t wanna to go to church today.”  For today’s teen, leaving the church is normal – but not necessarily helpful.  Teens today are exposed to more opportunities and options in the kind of church they want to go to.  And when they begin to put into practice their developing desire for independence, you might need to be prepared.

Building Independence

Every parent wants their child to grow up and become a successful adult; I know these parents.  They’re great parents.  But as our kids grow up, they begin to exercise more independence.  How we respond to them, especially in this area of going to church, will affect their decisions.  As we raise our kids, there are different signs and little signals that show us that our goal of helping our children become independent, is working – this is one of them.  Even if you don’t like the idea of your child not going to church with you, it’s a good sign.  It shows us that they are starting to think on their own instead of just following us.

Parents, I understand that we’re dealing with an issue that’s very important to you.  The real issue is faith in God, not going to church.  I so often hear parents say “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord,” and then in the next breath say to their kids “as long as you live under my roof, you will live by my rules.”  Does this sound familiar?  To tell you the truth, it unnerves me a bit.  You need to sit back and evaluate your values, beliefs and goals for your child.  If what you are telling them is contradictory, then you are going to be making your uphill battle even harder.

The Bigger Picture

Ultimately, you are helping your child form a belief system – not just a habit of going to church.  So, if your child can choose the church that he wants to go to, then you can help him achieve your own goals for your children.  Your goals may be for his spiritual training; if he can reach those goals on his own, it may be better to have him go to a different church that meets his interests, while keeping him connected to the church.

Let’s keep the kids involved in something.  I may lose the opportunity to sit in church with them, but I may gain something far greater in having them part of something that will help them throughout their life.  The bigger issue is their spiritual health.

Responding When Your Child Chooses Something Else

I would encourage you to pre-meditate your response when your teen tells you that he doesn’t want to go to church.  Are you going to allow your child to make choices in his life?  Even if you know they won’t make the choice that you want?  Just because you like the idea of your family doing things together, doesn’t mean it’s wrong for your teen to desire something different.  This is a season of independence you need to embrace in order to hold onto the bigger picture – faith in God.

As a parent, I want to help my child make good choices.  If they make choices that you don’t agree with, you may need to reign in the choice they are allowed to make.  Allow them the opportunity to make a choice, but provide for their training as well.  This way, instead of choosing not to go to church at the age of 13 or 14, you give your child the option to go to one of two or three churches.  They keep the ability to make a choice and have control over their lives, and you still help guide them toward faith.

At some point, your teen may reject any choice you give them.  But teens send out signals in advance of coming to this point, so you need to pick up on these clues.  If they’re falling asleep, writing notes during church services, or are more interested in eating after church than being part of church, you may need to address their actions.  If you see these things coming up, pull your teen aside and talk to him about it.  The issue could be something other than the church itself.  By talking to your child, you can help determine the motivation behind the behavior.

Make sure that your plan gives some opportunity and flexibility that reaches your goals for them.  As they get older, if your child chooses not to go to any church at all, keep your relationship with them.  Don’t shame them in the process or make sarcastic remarks.  These things will show your child that you are disappointed in them; instead, let God work it out and bring them back in His time.

You can hear us talk on this subject by listening to our radio program.  It’s called, Parenting Today’s Teens.  Next time, expert Chap Clark shares what he has seen in the lives of families that are facing this issue.  He’ll also share strategies he has found helpful for maintaining that relationship and allowing your teen to define his relationship with Christ.  Chap has been with Young Life for years and is now the Vice Provost at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California.  We will also talk, as always, with a teen who has experienced this issue in his life.

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Forgiving Our Teens

Written by Mark Gregston. Posted in Communications, conversation, family conflict, parenting communications, parenting style

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A friend of mine was walking back from the supermarket to his car, with arms full of groceries, when he noticed a gigantic dent on the passenger door of his car. It didn’t take an investigative reporter to see what had happened. Someone had parked too close to my friend’s sedan, and when they opened their driver’s door, WHAM! A massive cavity in an otherwise pristine vehicle. Worse, the careless driver had left no note on the windshield, no apology, and no insurance information. It was up to my friend to repair the damage himself.

Now, my buddy could have spent his time driving around town with a banged up car, mumbling under his breath about the “no-good so-and-so” who wrecked his ride. It would not be unreasonable to park his car a mile away from other cars so that it wouldn’t happen again. Or maybe he could just try to ignore the blemish and pretend it never happened. Instead, my friend invested the time and energy to fix the dent and then moved on.

Raising kids is no easy task. As parents, we are going to get dinged, scraped and dented along the way. Our kids will hurt us, intentionally or unintentionally, and the wounds can run deep. Maybe you are walking around with a banged up heart because of your son or daughter. There’s a big ‘ole dent in your life caused by your kids, and it stands as a constant reminder of how they disappointed you, hurt you, angered you. I know some parents who carry these types of wounds around with them for a long time. After a while, they can’t imagine life without the dents. To fix the issue would mean they would have to give up their right to be angry or upset. And so, moms and dads navigate their lives with banged up relationships and a chip on their shoulder.

But here’s the fix for broken relationships with your kids; personal forgiveness. And in order to offer forgiveness, you will have to give up a few things.

GIVE UP THE PAST

Forgiveness is giving up hope that the past will ever change. The mistakes made yesterday, last week, last month, last year are over and done with. We can brood and be upset about what our kids have done, but that will not change what happened. We can wish that our kids had not done what they did. We can regret the mistakes that were made. But pining for the past will not repair a broken relationship. In order to offer your son or daughter forgiveness, you need to give up hope that you can change what has already happened, and instead act now to change the future. Let go of the pain your child has caused you. Put the hurt behind you, and try to move forward.

I know this is difficult for parents. It’s why we begin many phrases with “You always ______”, or “Remember when you _____” or “You never _____” These are all references to the past, which supply no benefit to what is going on now and in the future. Forgiveness is only possible when we let go of what happened in the past and start working in the present towards the future.

GIVE UP CONTROL

Many parents have come up to me and said, “Mark, my teen has really hurt me, but refuses to say sorry. What do I do?” Remember that true forgiveness cannot be forced. Demanding apologies from our teens doesn’t engender repentance. Neither does guilting them into remorse. You do not have to wait for your teen to ask for forgiveness in order to forgive them. When you extend forgiveness regardless of your teen’s repentance, you are a living picture of grace. Grace is unmerited, undeserved, and unwarranted—but freely given. Romans 5:8 tells us that “While we were still sinners, Christ died us.” And as Jesus was hanging on the cross, He prayed, Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 22:34 NIV). God did not wait for us to get our act together, to come to Him on hands and knees in order to extend His grace to us. God made the first move. It’s this undeserved forgiveness from God that motivates and moves us towards repentance. So whether or not your teen ever asks for forgiveness, you can freely offer them grace. It not only frees you from the burden of carrying around your hurt all day, it might be just the thing that actually brings your child to repentance.

GIVE UP BITTERNESS

Forgiving people who do not deserve it is a challenge for me, just as it is for you. I carried a lot of anger and bitterness towards my father for many years. It was a like a collar around my neck. But I remember one night I had a dream where I died and went to heaven, and saw my dad standing next to God. I asked God point blank, “Why is HE here?” In my dream, the Lord said, “Mark I’ve used the difficulties this man caused you as instruments to transform you into the image of My Son.” I realized that all the resentment I was lugging around was keeping me from seeing what God was doing in my life, despite my father’s flaws.

Mom and Dad; could it be that God is using your difficult teen to mold and shape you into a stronger and more faithful person? Is it possible that those wounds from your child are teaching you how to be more like Jesus? You see, God can use even the terrible things in life for good. He can use the most painful events to bring about something beautiful. But when we stew in bitterness and refuse to forgive, we’re essentially blocking God’s work in our lives. I know it’s tough to forgive. But when you do, it opens you up to see how God is working in you and your child.

GIVE UP REVENGE

Forgiveness is not about forgetting what was done, ignoring the mistakes, or pretending it never happened. Simply put, forgiveness is releasing the offending party from their obligation to you. It is writing off the debt caused by their offense, and refusing to hold a grudge over it.

Yet at the same time, forgiveness does not equal reconciliation. If your teen’s behavior has driven a wedge between you, offering forgiveness does not magically make things better. You can forgive regardless of another person’s apology, but reconciliation requires both parties. When you forgive, you are doing your half. But the offending party must repent in order to complete the reconciliation process.

Additionally, forgiveness is not handing out a license to continue offensive behavior. If your teen is disrespectful, hurtful or mean, grace doesn’t say, “Keep doing what you’re doing.” Teens need to understand that such behavior cannot be allowed. When you forgive, you are releasing your teen from their obligation to you, but they still need to recognize that their behavior is inappropriate, otherwise they will continue to hurt people with their actions. Discipline may still be appropriate if they are not repentant. But discipline is about correcting behavior, not about revenge. Don’t punish your teen because she hurt you. Discipline her because you care about her and don’t want her to continue these destructive habits.

Lastly, forgiveness is more caught then taught. Maybe you’ve put a couple of dents in your parent’s lives, your teen’s life, or in someone else’s. Today, make the first move, call that person up, and ask for forgiveness, and let your teen see you doing it. It could inspire them to ask forgiveness from you. And if you are the one with the scratch in the paint or the dent in the door, it’s time to stop holding out—let go and offer forgiveness. Only this flow of offering and receiving grace can repair your broken relationships.

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Peace in Parenting At-Risk Teens

Written by Mark Gregston. Posted in conversation, independence, parenting communications, parenting style, Prayer, teen conflict, teen counseling, troubled teens

Philippians 4-6-7

When your teen is spinning out of control it is frightening to think about the damage he may be doing to his future. But that’s just what we parents do…we worry about our child when we see the warning signs (grades dropping, hanging around with the wrong crowd, drug use, depression, defiance, sexual promiscuity). The unknown is always scary, but we cannot watch over our teenager every minute.

Are you dealing with a struggling teen in your home? Are emotions running high and hope running low? I’d like to offer you some advice to help you find peace in the midst of this struggle…

We can learn much from the philosophy of a man struggling with terminal cancer. Talk about a hopeless situation! He said, “I try not to stand too long on the mountain, and I don’t sit too long in the valley. I live one day at a time, and try to keep my attitude somewhere near the middle.”

He continued, “I really enjoy the mountaintop days, when the cancer or the chemotherapy don’t bother me too much. On bad days God gives me peace, and I learn dependence on Him I probably wouldn’t learn any other way. The days in between, I pray for strength, and my hope in Him keeps me going.”

Life can be nearly as traumatic for parents watching helplessly as their child spins out of control. There are good days and there are terrible days. They try this and they try that, and each time they think they’ve got it figured it out, their teen throws a curve ball and they sink to a new low.

I’ve found that those who are successful seek God’s peace in both the highs and the lows of life, as well as the muddle in the middle. They survive by keeping their faith strong and they spend more time on their knees. They let each day bring what it will, realizing that tomorrow may or may not look anything like today and that in most cases their teenager will eventually come around.

Do not worry about anything, instead, pray about everything.
Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done.
If you do this, you will experience God’s peace, which is far more
wonderful than the human mind can understand.
–Philippians 4:6-7 (NLT)

Most parents describe the struggle with a teenager as a “roller-coaster” or a “powder keg” and for many it can either be a time of the family banding together, or it can tear them apart. With what is at stake, the most important thing you can do for your teenager is to keep your relationships strong and prevent the struggle from becoming the focus of your life.

You’ll have those “valley” days. Walk through the valley, and keep on walking, for as long as it takes. Do not stop to build monuments to your grief, anger, or fear. One thing that can help at the low times is to pull out old pictures and videos to remember the good old days when your teen didn’t treat you like dirt. It will give you better perspective and strength to keep fighting for what’s right for your teenager even though it may be a totally one-sided and unappreciated fight for his future.

And, celebrate the good days. They’ll likely be few and far between for a time, but that’s okay. Let them prop you up. Enjoy each victory. Laugh with your teen. Reflect on the good, and hope for a future filled with more days like it.

I’ve said a million times that consequences are the best tool a parent can use to teach maturity? I mention it because God, your heavenly parent, may be using this situation with your teenager to also teach you a thing or two. If so, take heed. Take a close look at your life to see if there is anything that needs changing. Most parents I deal with in our Heartlight residential program say that they, too, had to change before any real progress could be made with their teen.

The bottom line is that parents can do no good for their teenager if they are caught up in despair and are constantly on edge. Learn early from others who have gotten to the other side of this struggle and actually survived! Give the reins to God and He will give you peace, strength, and the right perspective to deal with your teenager. Look at what may need changing in your own life. And finally, no matter how they’ve hurt you and no matter what they’ve done, love your teen unconditionally, even as God also loves us.

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Fear-Based Parenting

Written by Mark Gregston. Posted in consequences, family conflict, parenting, parenting communications, parenting style, struggling teens

No fear concept

When we were young, the world may have seemed like an open playground, full of adventure. Around every corner was a brand new opportunity. There was wisdom to be gained from every experience. Many of us were bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as we took on the world for the first time.

Then we became parents. And the world changed.

We put safety latches on the cabinet doors. We placed plastic covers over empty electrical outlets. We told our precious children not to talk to strangers, not to take candy from people they don’t know, to avoid certain parts of town, to look both ways before they cross the street, and to call when they get there. As parents, we sweat when our daughter gets her license, goes to a dance, hangs out at the mall. We lay awake some nights worrying about whether our son will finish high school, find a job, avoid an accident, stay out of jail, and find a nice girl.

Let’s face it; the world suddenly becomes a much scarier place when children enter the picture. Unfortunately, the fear we feel as parents can trickle down into the way we raise our teens. Our apprehensions can force us to relate to and train our kids in an unhealthy way.

What exactly does fear-based parenting look like?

FEAR #1: Loss of Control

As parents, we tend to think that if we lose control of our kids, they will somehow go off the deep end and wreck their lives for good. This makes sense to some degree.  We know the dangers inherent in the world, so out of love we try to shelter our precious children from harm. But in order to do that, we clamp down on them. We start to dictate every area of their lives—from what they wear, to where they go, to what they do in their free time. Of course, we want to ensure they have the best opportunities as they grow up.  But when we are overzealous in our protection, our high-control techniques keep teens from exercising muscles that will actually strengthen their character in the long run.

It’s like getting a new car.  When you pull your new wheels into the driveway, it looks gorgeous.  It’s clean, sleek, and perfect.  And then you drive it.  After you put a couple thousand miles on it, it gets dings in the door and scratches in the paint.  The shine wears off.  Still, if you take care of it, it will run smoothly for many long years despite a few scratches and bumps. You could try to keep your car in perfect condition by leaving it in the garage and never driving it. But cars are made to be driven. And while hiding your car in the garage may protect the paint for a while, hoses, belts, tires and exposed metal parts will begin to crack, rot and rust. I’d rather drive a car with a few dings in it, than have a flawless paint job on something that doesn’t run!

Now, our kids are the same way. If we try to keep them away from the world, they may look good on the outside, but they will not be able to function when they have to encounter the world on their own. And let’s face it: No matter how long we keep our kids sheltered, sooner or later they are going to have to step out into the larger culture.

Do you really want the first time your kids get hurt or make a mistake to occur after they are out from under your care? At some point, you will lose your power to influence them. Whether your children are out of the area for college, the military, or a job, your ability to speak into their life will decrease.  When this happens, their primary source of guidance will be the character you built into them before they moved out– so it’s wise to make the most of the time you have with them right now.

Begin to give your kids more responsibility.  Encourage them to use every experience in life—good or bad—as an opportunity to apply the lessons you have been teaching them.  With the right balance of responsibility and opportunity, your child can begin to build that sense of independence and character needed to safely transition from adolescence to adulthood.

Fear #2: Exposure to Culture

Our culture bombards us with an ever-increasing number of suggestive and inappropriate media messages, and it’s easy to fear that our kids will be led astray. Unfortunately, short of wrapping our kids in bubble wrap, blindfolding them and plugging their ears, we simply can’t protect them from every negative influence. It may be tempting to make the boundaries so tight that there is no wiggle room, perhaps by keeping them from all technology. In reality, this is both impossible and unhealthy. The Internet and technology are too pervasive. And really, there are many good uses for them. We do not want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The desire to protect our children from culture’s negative influence is legitimate. But in the teen years we have the opportunity to move from teaching and policing to coaching and training.  While they are young, children need greater adult supervision on the computer, and this is where Internet filters come in handy.  But teens require guidance on how to deal with the constant stream of information they have access to every day.  It’s not enough to use filters anymore; there’s always a way to get around them.

Instead, let’s have honest conversations with our teens about proper boundaries.  Talk with your son or daughter about cyber-bullying, and ways they can avoid it and help others.  Discuss the dangers of pornography and the reasons they should keep their eyes pure.  Talk about the problems of over-sharing on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter and the hazards associated with revealing too much to strangers.  These conversations will be more effective than harsh rules. Teaching our teens to have discernment is vitally important.  They will inevitably still make mistakes.  But even in those mistakes we can help them see opportunities for growth.  Let your teen experience the consequences of their actions—whether it’s a brief loss of privileges, grounding, or having to make restitution—and continue to slowly delegate more responsibility and freedom for their self-government.  Remember, your goal is to coach your child to navigate culture on their own.

I also suggest parents take one night a week to be completely media free. It was once common for chairs in the living room to face each other; today they face the television set. So turn the chairs back toward each other and have a good talk.  But first, shut off all the electronic devices, including your own cell phone. Take time to listen and ask your kids questions about what is going on in their lives. Get the conversation started by playing a fun board game or go out for the evening to a park, swimming pool, or ballgame. In fact, surprise them with what you will be doing each week. The first couple of times you do this may be a bit of struggle, but your kids will actually begin looking forward to it! It is well worth the effort.

Fear #3: Conflict

I’ve been confronting kids for 40 years and it has not gotten any easier since the first time.  One would think that after living with 60 high school kids at a time for so long, confrontation would come easily.  It doesn’t.  But I have learned this through the years; even though I do not enjoy confronting people, I sure love the results. Conflict is a pre-cursor to change, not only in the life of the people I confront, but in my own life as well.

Conflict happens in every family. But we should not be afraid of it.  Yes, there is always a possibility that something said or insinuated might be hurtful.  You could make a mistake in your approach to conflict (wrong timing or mishandled accusation) or in the content of the discussion (misinterpreted words or comments wrongly made in the “heat of the battle”). But don’t let these fears stop you from engaging in family conflict! When you make a mistake, be quick to apologize. It will be another good lesson for your kids, and an exercise in humility for you. So don’t run from conflict between you and your teen. Use those times to communicate and work through the problems together.

Fear #4: Loss of Appearance

Moms and dads might also worry that their child’s bad behavior will reflect negatively on their parenting, so they micro-manage the house to erect a façade of perfection. But this fear-based attitude can be devastating for both you and your teen. Concerning yourself with your own good image is one of the fastest ways to build resentment in your home. If your teen has to have the haircut you want, listen to the music you approve of, wear the clothes you pick out, work at the job you chose, or have the friends you like, you’re inviting a rebellion. A teen at the Heartlight residential center once told me, “I’d rather do wrong and be in control, than do right and not be in control.”

Of course, I’m not suggesting that you lower the standards for proper behavior in your home. But keep in mind that it doesn’t matter what other people think about you or your child. It’s okay to admit, “We’re struggling right now.” Teens will make bad decisions. Parents will make mistakes. But that doesn’t mean you’re failing. There is not a parent on the planet who has achieved perfection. Let go of your fears about projecting a flawless image, and parent your teen in confidence.

We can be scared as parents. But we cannot parent in fear. If you’ve noticed that your parenting style is founded on anxiety and worry, learn to release all those fears to the Lord. It will free you up as a person, and as a parent.

 

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When Your Teen is Struggling

Written by Mark Gregston. Posted in Communications, parenting style, struggling teens

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Have you ever asked yourself, “What on earth does God have in mind by allowing both me and my teen to struggle so?”

I often see Christians who believe that parenting according to scriptural values, taking their kids to church every time the doors are open, and promoting family togetherness means that all will be well in the teenage years. Like buying an insurance plan, they think that doing the right things will bring about the right result.

Let me tell you, based on years of experience with struggling teens and their parents, that this thinking is just plain wrong. Never assume that applying a continuous moral or religious presence in your child’s life will in itself bring about a perfect transition from childhood to adulthood. It can help and should be encouraged, but it is no guarantee. The often-quoted scripture “train up a child in the way he should go” says nothing about the turbulent teenage years. In fact, you’ll want to remember that some biblical characters with seemingly perfect spiritual upbringings had difficulties themselves in their teenage years.

Stuff happens that is out of our control as parents, and even if we do everything right, stuff still happens. One angelic teenager can lead us to think that we have found the right formula, right up until we see our next child go down a completely different path. Welcome to the real world — where God gives each of our children a free will.

And, welcome to the one thing in life over which you have absolutely no control. It may be the first time in your life that you have to lean on God completely. And that’s not all bad.

Could this Time Be God’s Challenge to You?

In the heart of any parenting struggle there is usually more that we can learn. For instance, could God want us to know Him more fully? Could we benefit from a different perspective and have a better understanding of how to help other kids or parents? Could this difficult time reveal areas of our lives that need to change?

The point is this.  In God’s economy there is always a point to the pain. So allow God to use this time to move you along to a better place or to develop your own character.

Consider Psalm 139:23-24, “Search me oh God, and know my anxious thoughts, and see if there is any hurtful way in me, and lead me in paths of righteousness.”

In addition, think about Matthew 7:4-5, “How can you say, ‘My friend, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you don’t see the log in your own eye? You’re nothing but show-offs! First, take the log out of your own eye. Then you can see how to take the speck out of your friend’s eye.”

Do you have something that needs attention in your own life at the same time as you seek help for your teen? If so, remember this…it could have lasting benefits that go far beyond this difficult period. You will learn to trust God in a very real way.

– You will learn how to become a good listener — one who waits to be invited.

– You will grow spiritually, become more self-controlled, slower to speak, slower to anger.

– You will realize that God is still dependable, even when everything seems out of control.

– You will learn the extent of God’s great love for you.

– You will develop wisdom that is useful for the next generation in your family.

– Other parents will benefit from watching you handle your struggle in the right way.

– Out of desperation, you will stop faking your faith and make your dependence upon God real.

You see, the struggle is always partly about us, how we handle things and how we seek God’s help in the midst of the storm. It will challenge and sharpen our beliefs and help us confront our fear of losing control. Stated in another way, it will help build our faith and dependence on God’s every provision in our lives.

Aim Higher

Isn’t it somewhat comforting to know that God may have a bigger purpose in it all for both you and your teen? If you believe that, then don’t just focus on your teenager’s struggles at this time. Step in front of a mirror and look for areas in your own life that need to grow, and aim to make those changes with God’s help.

Take a moment right now to think about how God might be using your situation to reveal more about His character, and how that knowledge can help you in turn deal with your struggling teen.

The path of parenting a struggling teen isn’t an easy one, but there’s more than one reason for the struggle and I’m sure you don’t want to miss any lesson that God desires to have you learn from your circumstance.  Hang in there; you’ll get through it, and so will your teen.  And when “on the other side” of this bump in the road, you’ll see that God’s plan was much bigger than just eliminating the struggle.

My first book, entitled When Your Teen is Struggling, is a great follow up to this article.  You can purchase this book by going to our website, www.ParentingTodaysTeens.org or call 903.668.2173.

It’s a book that will help all parents understand the process of “struggle” and give insight into the heart of a teen who is.

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